- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2000

JERUSALEM Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threw himself into Israel's election fray yesterday, announcing his candidacy hours after Prime Minister Ehud Barak resigned over a collapsed peace process and a 2*-month-old Palestinian uprising.
Mr. Netanyahu, out of politics since losing an election last year to Mr. Barak, said he would try to unseat his former rival, who is seeking a new mandate from Israelis in a snap vote.
In doing so, he undermined what appeared to be Mr. Barak's strategy of thwarting Mr. Netanyahu's candidacy, but it wasn't immediately clear if Mr. Netanyahu could overcome legal hurdles to compete in the election, slated for Feb. 6.
The turmoil augured more trouble for peacemaking with the Palestinians, which has been mired in difficulties since the failed Camp David summit in July.
Mr. Netanyahu, in a nationally televised news conference, accused Mr. Barak of steering Israel to one of its worst crises in history and trying to hang on to power through political deception.
"In order to restore security for Israeli citizens, every home, mother and child in Israel, and to establish a stable and strong government that will unite the nation … I hereby declare my candidacy for the Likud party leadership and premiership of Israel," a confident-looking Mr. Netanyahu told reporters.
His speech followed weeks of speculation over Mr. Netanyahu's political plans. It also helped stir what some legal experts described as a constitutional crisis.
Mr. Barak, who lost his majority in parliament months ago, had been struggling to hang on to power. Last month he agreed to early elections but polls showed he would be crushed by Mr. Netanyahu, a shadow candidate until last night.
Mr. Barak's decision over the weekend to quit and stand for re-election caught the politicians by surprise.
Under Israeli law, Mr. Barak's resignation triggers special elections for a new prime minister within 60 days but only sitting members of parliament can compete. Mr. Netanyahu, who holds no public position, would be barred from running.
Instead, Mr. Netanyahu said he would try to persuade parliament to disband in the coming weeks, prompting a twin vote for prime minister and parliament in which he would be able to compete.
The vote was expected within weeks.
"It could go either way," said political scientist Barry Rubin of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, explaining that some political parties were afraid of losing seats in a new vote.
Mr. Netanyahu is leading Mr. Barak by at least 15 points in opinion polls. If he is barred from competing, Mr. Barak would probably face Likud leader Ariel Sharon. Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharon are running neck-and-neck.
Some Israeli analysts speculated that Mr. Barak's resignation would pressure Palestinians to agree to a quick peace agreement instead of facing future negotiations with Mr. Sharon or Mr. Netanyahu, who would offer fewer concessions.
But Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ruled out a deal in the coming months.
"It means peace talks will stop until elections are over, and this is not the first time the talks and implementation are delayed," Mr. Arafat said in the Gaza Strip.
Mr. Barak agreed at Camp David to a Palestinian state in much of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but talks broke down over the fate of Jerusalem and other issues. Fighting since then has killed at least 310 persons, including two yesterday. Most of the casualties have been Palestinians.
Mr. Barak, who took his resignation letter to Israel's president yesterday, said he wanted a new vote of confidence from Israelis before renewing his bid to strike a conflict-ending peace accord with the Palestinians.
The Central Committee of his left-leaning Labor party met later and nominated Mr. Barak as its candidate for the new election.
"Likud's problem is not who will stand at its head, but the fact that it has no path or alternative that can change the reality," Mr. Barak told supporters.
He said he would not block legislation aimed at letting Mr. Netanyahu compete, though analysts said his prospects of beating the former Israeli leader were poor.
Without parallel elections for a new parliament, Mr. Barak would stand a better chance of getting re-elected but would still preside over a fragile coalition.
"Suppose he wins the election. So what?" said Mr. Rubin, the political scientist. "Then he has to face the same parliament where, if he's lucky, he has a one vote majority. He'll be no better off."

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